Parents Are Desperately Searching for Baby Formula as National Supply Shortage Continues

Families across the country are struggling because of the baby formula shortage. Parents and experts weigh in on the shortage and the problems it's causing.

Empty baby bottles
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Katie Ruark, a mom based in New Market, Maryland, has felt the immense pressure of trying to feed her 5-month-old son who has dairy and soy intolerances. She tried to breastfeed initially, but her baby was losing weight and often had blood in his diapers from the intolerance. When he was 2 months old, Ruark started him on Nutramigen, a hypoallergenic formula their pediatrician suggested. At first, she was easily able to order it from Amazon. That all changed around March, when the formula shortage began to worsen, and Amazon ran out of stock.

"We were getting close to the bottom of our can and were going to need formula that evening," says Ruark. "My husband went to more than three stores, but there was none of our son's type of formula in any of the places he looked. We ended up having to dip into his emergency supply at day care that day."

In the following weeks, Ruark used all her spare time to hunt down formula. She and her husband texted each other throughout the day about different stores they could try. The desperate mom sent friends and co-workers a photo of the formula, in case they saw it while they were out shopping. She even contacted her parents in Florida to see if they could find it and ship it to her. In the middle of the night, Ruark stayed awake scouring the internet in hopes of finding shops that had restocked overnight. The last resort: certain pharmacies carried the formula, but it cost $30 more. That solved the problem temporarily. But the frustrated parents are now near the end of the supply they'd found once again.

"I feel like every mom knows how stressful feeding her baby is: 'Are they eating enough? Am I overfeeding them?'" says Ruark. "And now, moms are running out [of formula] and haven't even been able to feed their kids. It makes me want to cry."

The baby formula shortage started in 2021 and has only worsened in 2022. In January, out-of-stock rates were at 23 percent, and by April formula shortages hit 31 percent, according to Datasembly. Shortages have impacted the entire food industry due to difficulties accessing supplies, transportation, and labor. However, the formula shortage specifically took a turn for the worse in February, when Abbott Nutrition, a major formula manufacturing facility in Michigan, recalled its powdered infant formula following a Cronobacter contamination.

Katie Ruark, a mom in New Market, Maryland

My husband went to more than three stores but there was none of our son's type of formula in any of the places he looked. We ended up having to dip into his emergency supply at day care that day.

— Katie Ruark, a mom in New Market, Maryland

"In some cases, the facility was the only manufacturer of certain specialty formulas needed for infants with special medical needs," says Sarah Sorscher, J.D., M.P.H., deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

Abbott is now releasing some specialty formulas on a case-by-case basis for children whose medical needs leave them with no alternative options. Families can call the company directly if they are in need of this type of help. But the formula shortage continues nationwide, with stores even putting limits on how many products customers can buy at once and prices increasing. It's understandably causing widespread panic among parents of infants, many of whom are now buying in bulk whenever they can find the formula they need.

"Parents have become spooked at the prospect of running out of formula and finding none of the shelves, so stockpiling has become a driving factor preventing supply from keeping up with demand," says Sorscher. "Imagine being a parent of a child where this is their sole source of nutrition. You are absolutely going to feel that pressure to stockpile. It all combines to create a perfect storm for shortages."

The Ripple Effects of the Formula Shortage

Steven A. Abrams, M.D., a professor in the department of pediatrics at Dell Medical School, continues to hear from many families switching brands and searching several stores for the formula they need. "Some families have faced real shortages when they simply can't find anything for a few days," says Dr. Abrams, also mentioning that families in rural areas and small towns are often struggling even more with fewer shops around.

Families in the lower income bracket who typically don't have the resources or access to shop around for different formulas are also being impacted on a deeper level. Organizations supporting families struggling financially fear how the shortage will further impact people navigating the systemic challenge of feeding their children—especially during the current economic state. "As inflation soars, food and gas prices are skyrocketing," says Raven King-Edwards, M.P.H., senior manager of early childhood at No Kid Hungry. "And as nationwide child nutrition waivers and emergency SNAP allotments are both set to expire in June, millions of families already struggling are going to be pushed off a hunger cliff."

It's also concerning how this formula shortage may impact children in the years to come. "The early years are a critical time for development," says King-Edwards. "Food insecurity in the early years can have an immediate and lasting impact on overall health, learning, school readiness, and behavior."

What's more: the formula shortage is forcing some parents to take desperate measures. Dr. Abrams is concerned about reports of parents diluting formula with cow's milk, which could damage an infant's digestive system, and even worse, making their own. The FDA advises against homemade formula because it can cause severe nutritional imbalances and any error in selecting and combining ingredients can seriously harm infants.

Dr. Abrams is also worried for parents like Maryland mom Ruark who have children with intolerances and allergies. "The bigger problem has been a small number of families that use a specialized formula for babies with severe allergies or renal and GI problems," says Dr. Abrams. "The number of alternatives is limited or none—it's very traumatic for parents."

Brooke Blackwell, a mom of triplets in Chicago

I'm not sleeping at night because I'm worried about whether or not we are going to have enough food to get through the week because the formula isn't there.

— Brooke Blackwell, a mom of triplets in Chicago

Brooke Blackwell, a mother to triplets and full-time attorney based in Chicago, has also felt that struggle firsthand. She spent months experimenting with specialty formulas for premature babies for her boys, who are 9 months old, and 7 months adjusted. She finally found a Target brand rice formula that worked for all three of her babies. "It was our magic fix for feeding," she says, describing how the formula kept severe reflux at bay and helped her babies gain weight.

But she was recently only hours away from her last can of formula. "My husband and I are looking for it," says Blackwell. "My parents are looking for it. My siblings all over the country are looking for it." Blackwell also reached out to Facebook groups hoping other parents may have seen the formula she needs. Giving up hope she will find the Target brand again, she's trying a similar formula from Walmart. She and her husband managed to reserve three cans from a Walmart 30 minutes away from their home, but are nervous that the change in formula may cause reflux and weight loss in their boys.

"I'm just really tired," says Blackwell. "On top of working full-time, I'm spending my time tracking down formula and getting in touch with my pediatrician. I'm not sleeping at night because I'm worried about whether or not we are going to have enough food to get through the week because the formula isn't there."

Experts like Sorscher hope this formula shortage will urge supply chain managers to be more focused on the needs of babies in the future while working harder to fix the issue now. "Infants are some of the most vulnerable consumers in our food system, and that system right now is failing them," she says. "It's critically important that stakeholders identify the bottlenecks holding up the formula supply chain and respond to address them."

If your family is struggling to find baby formula, here's what you can do.

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